Whether I’d like to admit it or not, today is a special day. Yes, it’s my birthday. Yes, I’m halfway through yet another decade. Yes, my house is fully paid off as of this weekend and I’m semi-officially debt-free (I’m not really counting my car lease here). Those are all reasons enough to celebrate and pop open a bottle of champagne that I brought back with me from Paris 11 years ago, but there’s another, more private reason why I’m celebrating today.
Ten years ago today, I was out in the South Side, enjoying birthday beverages with some friends after work. It was my actual birthday (not just birthday weekend), and we were having quite a good time. We hit up the usual South Side hot spots – it was a Monday, so it wasn’t too crowded and crazy. Towards the end of the night, we decided to go to Tom’s Diner for french fries and milkshakes, because that’s what one does when one is celebrating a quarter of a century on this earth (and also when one is drunk). We sat at the counter and ordered our shakes and fries, and my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but it was local, so I picked it up, thinking it was someone wishing me happy birthday from a new phone.
That phone call changed the course of my life, and it’s one I’ll never ever forget. The person on the other end was a doctor I’d been going to for the past month or so, and we’d recently run some tests. I wasn’t expecting to hear the results for another few days, and I was kind of under the assumption that everything was in my head and I was fine, so when he told me I had cancer and I’d need surgery soon, I was kind of stunned. I remember part of me was relieved – it wasn’t all in my head! – and part of me was numb. Cancer is a thing that happens to other people, not people who are in the gym every day and eating well. It’s a thing that happens to people who feel way worse than I felt – I felt pretty awful, but I wasn’t in pain or so lethargic I couldn’t move. Cancer is certainly not a thing you find out about on your 25th birthday, late into the evening while you’re still celebrating with friends in the South Side.
When I hung up the phone, I kind of just sat on the stool at Tom’s Diner and stared at the counter for a second. My friends of course wanted to know what was wrong – I went from festive to somber (and sober) in the course of a 3-minute phone call. I told them, and immediately the mood was ruined. We got our shakes and fries and we all ate in relative silence. I remember I drove home, got in the bathtub and tried to cry, but I couldn’t – I was still too numb. The next couple days were a haze, but the worst day of all was when my parents came for a belated birthday dinner and I had to tell them. To date, I think that’s the worst day of my life. Telling the people who love you that you’re seriously sick is so. much. worse. than finding out yourself.
Things are fairly fine right now, and I won’t bore you with the specifics. I had surgery, then radioactive iodine therapy, then more iterations of radioactive iodine therapy, then something called thyrogen (which I refer to as “Chinese hamster ovary cell therapy” because that’s what the drug is made of), and on and on. If I’m being totally honest, I’m not completely out of the woods – my last scan showed abnormal activity, but I haven’t followed up on it because the thyrogen is crazy-expensive and the radioactive iodine prep makes me sick. It’s not a fatal form of cancer, so no worries. It’s fine if it drags on for a little while. I’m essentially fine, and very few people who know me in real life know the story of it all (because there’s no need to know). As far as everyone is concerned, I am just as normal as ever.
But, the one little victory here, and the point of this story, is that it’s been exactly 10 years since I was diagnosed with cancer. Life hasn’t worked out the way I’d expected – if you’d asked me before the diagnosis what I’d be doing when I turned 35, the answer would be very, very different from today’s reality. But cancer is like that – it changes your career path without your consent, and it changes your friends. It changes the way everyone who knows about it interacts with you, and it changes your life ongoing – daily medication is a way of life for me now, and without it, I’ll die (or so I’ve been told). So a lot has changed in the 10 years since I found out, and not all of it has been for the better. But then again, not all of it has been bad.
I own a house, free and clear. I have friends who are the absolute best people I’ve ever met. My family is still around, and my parents top my list of my favorite people. I have a good job with amazing benefits. I have an even better alternate life where I spend 40+ hours a week volunteering. I have Tank. I have Taco. I have a zippy little Mini Cooper that has no problem topping 100 mph on a highway.
And I have an 11-year-old bottle of good champagne that is bridging the gap between my former life in Paris and my current life in Pittsburgh.
So today, I’m celebrating. I’ve got a birthday, I’ve got a house that’s all mine, and I’ve got 10 years of an altered life course that hasn’t turned out so bad after all.
Maybe it’s not what I wanted 10 years ago, but I’m finding I may have gotten exactly what I need. ❤